Failing to Improve Critical Thinking

The problem flows directly from the structure of the current college experience, writes Ben Paris.

November 29, 2016
 
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Educators and employers agree that critical thinking is one of the essential skills required for postgraduation success. Unfortunately, multiple surveys indicate that employers believe that recent grads do not have the critical-thinking skills those employers expect, although recent grads (surprise!) have a sunnier view of their capabilities.

Whether recent grads are up to standard or not, there’s evidence that the college experience does not do enough to improve those skills, and not a lot of evidence that it does. In “Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble,” John Schlueter takes this case even further, questioning whether the college experience can even in principle build those skills.

I’m more optimistic. In contexts ranging from higher education to corporate training to test preparation, I’ve helped thousands of learners improve their skills and found nothing unique about that process. While aptitude for critical thinking is clearly not distributed equally in the population, no one is an expert critical thinker from birth. Even the best of us had to learn it somewhere.

That said, it isn’t easy. We can improve critical-thinking skills, in college or elsewhere, but doing so requires a commitment, an understanding of the nature of the task and deep learning experiences.

What makes teaching and improving critical-thinking skills so difficult? Here are a few factors:

  • Definitions. There’s no general agreement on what critical thinking is. Whereas people don’t often debate the properties of exponents or the components of a complete sentence, we’re less aligned when it comes to critical thinking. It often gets confused with creative thinking, reflective thinking or other skills.
  • Complexity. Critical-thinking tasks tend to be much more difficult than others in part because critical thinking needs to be built on a foundation of language and comprehension. Also, some of the issues involved when analyzing statements and arguments are quite subtle. Moreover, many people resist the notion that anything could be wrong with their thinking process, and those with the weakest skills tend to be the most resistant.
  • Abstraction. Critical thinking is not a list of facts to memorize. It’s a process, a general way of approaching problems. That means learners have to connect the general lessons they’ve learned to totally new situations. Common patterns emerge, but learners have to recognize them in order to leverage critical-thinking training.
  • Contrast. Modern education too often focuses on memorization, compliance and endurance rather than critical thought. Educational experiences based on “drill and kill” reward people who follow instructions and punish people who are more critical. Of course, people who succeeded in college by doing as they were told often have trouble solving real-world problems that are new and different. Critical thinkers do well in the long run, but they often have to survive a culture that teaches them not to be critical.
  • Training. We ask a lot of our instructors. They need to know their subject matter, of course, but they also need to know about education itself while developing the communication skills to connect with a diverse group of learners. Most faculty members haven’t been trained in critical thinking, and while they can pick it up, they’ll need consistent and sophisticated support to do so.
  • Measurement. Writing is hard. Writing assessments is very hard. Writing critical-thinking assessments is extremely hard. While some maintain that critical thinking cannot be measured at all, or can only be measured by complex items such as essays, it is possible to create valid measures of critical-thinking skills such as identifying assumptions, analyzing arguments and making inferences. But even assessment writers have a hard time writing those questions.

Why What We’re Doing Isn’t Working

By now, it should be clear that improving critical-thinking skills in college or anywhere else is a tall order under the best of circumstances. But what we have now is far from the best of circumstances, and that is not an accident. We can lament our failure to improve critical-thinking skills, but the truth is that this failure is not really a bug in the system. It’s a feature that flows from the structure of the current college experience.

Critical thinking, like other higher-order skills, gets crowded out in college courses that try to cover as much of the subject matter as possible. In the large introductory courses, with the largest number of students per class, students devote instructional time to a wide range of topics because no one wants to leave anything out. That forces the students into a breakneck pace that leaves little time for anything more than learning the vocabulary of the discipline -- vocabulary that mostly gets forgotten just after the final exam. If critical thinking is addressed at all, it tends to be tacked onto the core content in a manner that everyone can tell is contrived. Students might be invited to reflect on potentially interesting topics, but few will do so without meaningful feedback and some kind of credit toward a good grade.

Too many classes are this way, but the bigger problem is that they tend to stay this way. Faculty members who have their class structure set tend to be reluctant to radically change anything, especially when the change would require them to develop new expertise, as is often the case with critical thinking. Moreover, introducing critical thinking into an already-stuffed course tends to lower grades, as critical-thinking questions tend to be difficult and different from what students are accustomed to.

Also, it can be hard to convince faculty members to make a change that would likely hurt their evaluations -- and possibly their employment -- and often those evaluations depend on the grades that students receive. That’s why when critical thinking is included in courses, it sometimes gets covered in a way that poses no threat to anyone’s grades. What should be a rigorous analysis of evidence and conclusion instead becomes a glorified opinion poll. Students say whatever they want about the subject, and then … nothing.

What Would Be Better?

The path to improving critical-thinking skills starts with awareness. We must recognize that the world has changed and that possessing information and being able to execute rote procedures is not enough. Anyone who merely follows instructions is at risk of being replaced by someone cheaper or a machine.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that actively analyzing decisions leads to better outcomes, and the people who can do that will drive innovation and organizational success, no matter where they wind up. We need instructors and students to recognize the importance of critical thinking and be inspired with its potential to improve the world. It also requires a commitment to do justice to critical-thinking and other higher-order skills. It means accepting that courses won’t cover as many subjects, but they’ll do a better job with the ones they do cover.

Along the way, we should encourage learners who have been raised on a diet of compliance and social control to take a critical mind-set. But that doesn’t mean that we should teach them that all arguments are equally valid and that the truth is whatever you decide it is at that moment. Just as we learn to raise our standards when analyzing the claims of others, we also need to apply high standards to our own thinking. That’s why critical thinking can be an important part of self-improvement. It can help you get what you want, but it can also help you decide what you want to want.

We also have to arrive at a reasonable and workable definition of critical thinking and its related concepts. I’m not recommending that we create some semisecret code language to exclude “nonexperts” from the conversation. Education has enough of that already. However, we should come to a common understanding of terms such as assumption, relevance, argument and critical thinking itself.

The dictionary is a fine starting point, and we should add to ordinary definitions only when the interests of clarity call for it. For example, here’s the definition of critical thinking we use at my company:

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. It is the ability to make logically sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and to be fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.

That covers the essential elements of the concept without requiring a doctoral dissertation. Others are of course free to disagree, to add, to subtract or to alter, but any meaningful definition of critical thinking is likely to include those core elements. This definition, or something like it, can be part of a shared and inclusive vocabulary that will help us identify the point at issue, the terms of the argument and the standards by which we make decisions.

With a clear and flexible structure, we make great progress, but it also helps to spot patterns of reasoning that appear across academic disciplines and real-world environments. While every situation could be different, being able to spot analogous situations can help us apply lessons we learned from our previous experience. No matter where we go, we should watch out for causation issues, representativeness and the difference between necessity and sufficiency. We should identify scope shifts, alternative explanations and ambiguous terms. Critical thinking will never be a mechanical application of procedures, but it still helps to have a sense of the usual suspects when it comes to logic.

While critical thinking is, by its nature, abstract, it also should be an applied field. For that reason, part of the process of improving one’s critical-thinking skills is to solve problems in real-world contexts and to practice drawing connections between the abstract concepts of critical thinking and the facts on the ground. Let’s not underestimate the value of practice, either. Critical thinking is like other skills in that it gets better with practice, but it has to be the right kind of practice. Pure repetition won’t help, but careful analysis will. That’s why we need to evaluate the claims we hear in everyday life, examine critiques of arguments to see if they have represented their subject fairly and construct our own persuasive arguments -- holding ourselves to the same standards we apply to others.

To illustrate the results of this process, consider this true story of critical-thinking success. On his first day at his new publishing job, an editor got bad news: samples from a new print job had come in, and they had a huge flaw that made all the books unusable. He was asked if he wanted to trash the entire print run. He would not have been blamed if he had, but instead he asked if they were sure that all of the books had that flaw. As it turned out, they didn’t. It was only some of them, and so he saved thousands of books from going to the landfill for no good reason.

For this to happen, he needed to be aware that he needed to apply his critical-thinking skills, he needed a structure to analyze the situation, he needed to recognize a familiar pattern of reasoning (in this case, representative samples) and he needed to apply what he knew from the publishing context. In this case, he knew that print samples sometimes come from only one round of printing and may not represent the entire print job. It was an insightful decision, but it wasn’t magic. Decisions like this are the natural product of sophisticated learning processes reinforced with experience.

But Can Critical Thinking Truly Be Improved?

It isn’t easy, and aptitude varies, but critical-thinking skills are not fixed at birth. We know that some people have strong skills, and they had to get them from somewhere. People still debate the extent to which critical thinking is a general skill that can be transferred whole into any context as opposed to being a context-dependent skill. The truth could be somewhat in between. There are certain structures, patterns and techniques that can be learned in general and applied elsewhere.

That is what I did while creating preparation courses for exams such as the LSAT and GMAT. We never knew exactly what the subject matter of the questions would be, but that didn’t matter as long as the patterns of reasoning were the same. That being said, context still matters, and applying one’s general skills is not equally easy everywhere.

My friend who made the inspired call about the print job had strong thinking skills but also needed to know something about publishing in order to find that solution. So there’s something to the notion that we ought to integrate critical thinking into our courses of study and not teach it as an entirely separate discipline. That’s another debate.

For now, I hope to have advanced the case that everyone can get better at critical thinking, but only if we make it a priority. The fact that we haven’t made great progress is evidence that we haven’t tried more than it is evidence that we can’t.

Bio

Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in educational assessment and learning design. He is the vice president of learning architecture for ansrsource, where he develops learning solutions for academic and professional environments.

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